Fredericka Carolyn “Fredi” Washington (December 23, 1903 – June 28, 1994), was a dancer, writer, actress, vocalists, and civil rights activist. Born in Savannah, Georgia, she went to St. Elizabeth Convent in Pennsylvania, then attended the Egri School of Writing and the Christopher School of Languages before beginning a career as a dancer. She toured with Shuffle Along from 1922 to 1926 and made her debut in a leading role onstage opposite Paul Robeson in Black Boy (1926). She first appeared in the musical short Black and Tan (1929), in which Duke Ellington and His Cotton Club Orchestra debuted; Ms. Washington played a dancer who died bearing unrequited love for Ellington.
She preceded White actress Jeanne Crain in a stellar performance of Peola, a character who was the most “tragic” of all “tragic mulattoes” in film, in the 1934 box-office hit Imitation of Life, featuring Louise Beavers and Claudette Colbert.
Here, in the following video clip from Imitation of Life where Peola (played by Fredi Washington) pours her heart out begging her mother (played by Louise Beavers) to let her go, as Bea (played by Claudette Colbert), listens:
The pain and despondence that both Peola and her mother feel was brought on by the racist pigmentocracy of an anti-black America, as the above scene so vividly dramatizes.
A year earlier she had played opposite Paul Robeson in his film debut, The Emperor Jones (1933), based on Eugene O’Neill’s play of the same name. She also appeared in The Old Man and the Mountain (1933), Drums of the Jungle (19350, and One Mile From Heaven (1937) with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
Fredi Washington photographed on March 28, 1933.
Although Ms. Washington possessed the requisite Hollywood beauty and talent, roles were infrequent:
“A fair-skinned, green-eyed African-American actress, Fredi Washington was well-respected for her talent as a film and theater performer. Nevertheless, she consistently faced difficulties because of the conflict between her light complexion and her social identity as an African American. She was cast in very limited roles, playing stereotypical mulatto characters—tragically beautiful girls doomed because of their mixed race. As a result of Hollywood’s merciless typecasting, Washington was never able to achieve her full potential as an actress.
In Black Boy, one of her early theater successes, Washington starred with Paul Robeson, playing a black girl who passed for white. Audiences were interested in the play in large part because Washington was viewed as a curiosity, a black girl who looked white. Her part in Black Boy was Washington’s first in a long line of mulatto characters who suffered terribly as a result of their mixed racial heritage. In her most famous role of this type, Peola in Imitation of Life, Washington “emerged as the archetypal tragic mulatto for the Depression era.” Imitation of Life starred Claudette Colbert as a widow and Louise Beavers as her servant; the two become friends and business partners and share the challenges of raising their daughters alone. Washington’s character, Peola, the maid’s mulatto daughter, figures in a subplot that is so affecting it nearly eclipses the primary story. Peola leaves home, passes for white, and marries a white man. In spite of her outstanding performance, Washington received no offers for lead roles in other films. Of Hollywood’s typecasting of Washington and other African-American actresses, Donald Bogel suggests, “the movies were not ready for idealized tragic black heroines. Audiences preferred mammies and Jemimas who could be laughed at or enjoyed or pitied but who would not strike at their consciences.”
Hollywood’s discomfort with Washington was evident not only in the limited roles she was offered, but also in her treatment at the hands of the industry. When she appeared in The Emperor Jones with Paul Robeson, for example, Will Hays, the then powerful head of Hollywood’s censoring agency, insisted that Washington wear dark makeup to conceal her light complexion, insuring that the audience would not mistake her for a white woman in her love scenes with Robeson. Frustrated by the racist treatment she faced in Hollywood, Washington eventually gave up her film career.”
Like other Black actors, she toured Europe seeking places to pursue her ambition to perform. She also appeared in a substantial number of stage productions, including Mamba’s Daughters with Ethel Waters and Georgette Harvey (1939), and an all-Black production of Lysistrata on Broadway in 1946, in which she played the leading role. She used her considerable talents on radio, performing in the Jewish immigrant comedy The Goldbergs and in specials for the National Urban League. She was an indefatigable civil rights activist, using her writing skills in regular columns called “Fredi Speaks” and “Headlines and Footlights” for The People’s Voice, a weekly paper founded by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in 1938. She was active in the “Interracial Film and Radio Guild”, co-founder and executive director of the Negro Actors Guild, and administrative secretary for the Joint Actors Equity-Theater League Committee on Hotel Accommodations for Negro Actors.
During the 1930s, she marched on picket lines and participated in boycott campaigns to force Harlem stores, utility companies, and bus lines to hire Blacks. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, she participated in the Cultural Division of the national Negro Congress and the Committee for the Negro in the Arts.
In 1975, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
On June 28, 1994, in Stamford, Connecticut, Ms. Fredi Washington died of stroke at the age of 90.
Black Women in America, by Darlene Clark Hine, et. al.